Feds probe Albuquerque camper shooting as police rethink use of force

Police in Albuquerque killed a homeless man in a shooting critics say was unjustified. The US Justice Department is investigating as police departments rethink armed response policies.

Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal/AP
Mariee McCoy, center, holds up a sign protesting Albuquerque Police Department officers. The US Justice Department is investigating the fatal police shooting of homeless camper James Boyd.

The standoff in the Sandia foothills between gun-pointing police officers and a homeless camper with a small knife was by all accounts intense. But the FBI has now launched a criminal probe into why Albuquerque police officers on the scene killed the man, James Boyd, as he appeared to be giving up.

Dealing with potential violence is part of daily police work, and officers are afforded wide latitude by the courts to protect themselves and others. They’re usually not held liable if they make an adrenaline-fueled mistake.

But given a rash of questionable police shootings in Albuquerque and beyond, the camper shooting is now bringing even more pressure on police to change their training and tactics, particularly to include more precise threat-gauging and offering more options to deescalate tense situations.

The FBI announcement on Friday of a criminal probe into the camper shooting is the first acknowledgement of a Department of Justice civil rights investigation that’s been going on for several years in the city. Albuquerque officers have racked up 23 fatal shootings in the last three years, one of the highest per capita tallies in the country.

But police experts also note that police across the country have begun to question if the average 400 “officer-involved shootings” a year is too high, and whether the mix of outdated training and the expansion of military-style gear and tactics even into small town police departments has become a more fundamental problem in modern-day police departments.

The New Mexico police academy has responded to the federal probe by shifting training to a “reasonableness standard model” where officers have a choice whether or not to draw their gun depending on the level of real threat. The new curriculum, for examples, teaches rookies to take distance into account and first try using a stun gun when dealing with a knife-wielding suspect. The previous “reactive control” training mandated that officers draw their guns at the sight of any weapon, even a penknife.

That kind of training shift is happening across the country.

"Everyone is trying to move toward a more up-to-date model based on all the case law and new technologies available," Dona Ana, N.M., Sheriff’s Captain Greg Garland tells the Associated Press. "The world is changing, and law enforcement needs to change with it."

There may be other factors fueling the shooting of citizens by police, experts say. Even as many police training programs don’t put nonlethal weapons at the center of officers’ response training, the average police department, even rural ones, have become increasingly militarized via various Defense Department programs that send gear like automatic rifles and night vision goggles to local police.

That combination of a militarized mindset and arsenal and outdated training “is an extremely risky way to do policing and it puts police officers and citizens unnecessarily in harm’s way,” Peter Kraska, an expert on use of force at Eastern Kentucky University, told ABC News last year.

Whether training or another factor played into the camper shooting will be part of the FBI probe.

What is known is that Albuquerque police shot Mr. Boyd last week after a standoff that lasted hours, and after he vowed to kill the police officers with a small knife. As part of the standoff, police fired non-lethal projectiles, including stun guns and bean bag guns, before using live ammunition.

But one of the officer’s helmet-cameras subsequently showed that Boyd had calmed down and had agreed to leave the illegal camp site with the officers. He was gathering his gear and took a step toward the officers when he was shot and killed.

In its statement, the FBI said the Bureau started the probe to “assure the public that a thorough and fair investigation will be conducted.”

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